Spoiler Warning: This article contains spoilers for both The Last of Us Part 2 and The Last of Us, as well as Metal Gear Solid 3. Proceed with caution.
One of the most famous scenes in video game history comes at the end of Metal Gear Solid 3, when Snake faces off against The Boss. It's framed as a tragic encounter, one in which Boss must kill his beloved mentor, even going so far as to force you to pull the trigger. Even today the scene is lauded for its emotional storytelling, as well as the way that it makes you, the player, complicit in killing Snake's teacher.
That scene was very much on my mind over the course of The Last of Us Part 2's conclusion, an extended battle to the death between its two protagonists, Abby and Ellie. Like with Metal Gear Solid 3, these fights are intended to be tragic, even if in the end neither of them actually die. A huge amount of time is spent building up to these fights—almost to the point of being exhausting.
But there's more at stake than simply getting the emotions of Abby and Ellie's battle to land properly. In pitting the sequel's two heroines against one another, Naughty Dog is trying to bring the original full circle. And for my money, it's pretty successful—no easy feat.
The breathless run to The Last of Us Part 2's finale begins in the movie theater that has served as Ellie's base camp to this point, in a scene that puts you in Abby's shoes as she is hunted by Ellie. It plays out like a horror movie, with Ellie filling the roll of serial killer as she slowly stalks through the stage area, gun at the ready. Abby, meanwhile, hangs just out of sight, unable to engage directly. Attempting to attack will result in Abby getting a shotgun blast to the face.
Even if you don't like Abby, it's a great sequence, bringing into conflict your natural desire to successfully complete the scenario with the fear of killing off Ellie. The tension is heightened by the stark lighting, which alternately bathes the area in harsh light and shadow, and the sense of danger. Given the grim nature of the story, it feels entirely plausible that Ellie, Abby, or both could end up dying.
What startled me was the dissonance between my motivations and those of both Ellie and Abby. In the game, Abby and Ellie are fully set on killing one another, caught up in the red mist of bloodlust after watching their friends die at each other's hands. I was far more ambivalent. It was almost as if I represented their nagging conscious; the little voice saying, "Don't do it. Don't do it."
Naughty Dog's games have always been akin to a theme park ride, encouraging you to whoop with excitement at the exciting action sequences while subtly setting up rails. This is the dark side of that dynamic. The Last of Us Part 2 puts you on a grim ride that seems to race toward a depressing destination, and there's nothing you can do but see it out and hope that it doesn't end up being that bad.
The dual encounters that form The Last of Us Part 2's conclusion are its emotional climax, and among the more intense sequences I've ever experienced in a video game. Each one hits at a different set of emotions. The first encounter in the movie theater is defined by rage, culminating in Abby very nearly murdering both Ellie and Dina. The second is defined by exhaustion, both for the main characters and for you, the player. Both bring with them an intense feeling that anything can happen, imbuing their climactic moments with a kind of manic desperation.
Nowhere is that more evident than when Ellie and Abby battle again in Santa Barbara—Abby wasted and weak after being strung up by a local gang, Ellie severely weakened after being stabbed in the side by a trap. As Ellie grabs Abby and holds her beneath the waves, it seems certain that it's all over; that Abby is going to die. Indeed, this was evidently the original intent.
"For more than 50 percent of the production, Ellie used to kill Abby at the end," director Neil Druckmann told IndieWire in an interview. "Which gave a whole different kind of feel to the ending, and then another character would have to stop the cycle of violence. But at some point, through our conversations about Yara and Lev, we came to the realization that it wasn't as honest to Ellie's character that way. Deep down inside there's goodness there. Hopefully she can go forward and build her life."
The decision to have Ellie fight Abby in Santa Barbara is a controversial one; as is the decision to have Ellie spare Abby. I've seen people argue that it's out of character for Ellie to go out to Santa Barbara in the first place, in the process shunning Dina, the farm, and the child they're raising together. What is driving this obsession with revenge? And in the end, why go all the way to California if she can't finish the job?
It helps to understand what drives Ellie to Seattle, then Santa Barbara, in the first place. It's not just that she needs to get revenge for Joel. Ellie is still grappling with the agony of knowing that she might have saved humanity, and that Joel lied to her. We see how much tension remains in their relationship after Joel defends Ellie from a bigot in Jackson's dance hall and she turns on him, yelling that she doesn't need him to defend her. Joel is murdered by Abby the following day, turning her mixed up feelings of grief and anger into a relentless need for revenge; one she can't let go of because she still hasn't moved beyond what happened in the previous game.
If that isn't obvious enough, The Last of Us Part 2 makes it explicit. Upon discovering a malnourished, tied up Abby, Ellie instinctively cuts her down, seemingly rendering her entire journey to Santa Barbara moot. But as the pair prepare to part ways, we're treated to a very brief flashback to Joel after he is bloodied and beaten by Abby's golf club, and we know in that moment that Ellie can't just let go. She has to finish the job.
Why Ellie Decided to Spare Abby
And so Abby and Ellie find themselves staggering in the surf, awkwardly grappling and punching, until Ellie is finally able to get the upper hand and push Abby underwater. I was sure in this moment that Abby was going to die; so certain, in fact, that I found I had to look away from the screen as I hit the button.
But that's not how it plays out. Ellie releases Abby at the last moment. She doesn't go through with it. There's a hint of why in our final glimpse of Joel, in which he and Ellie sit on a porch outside Jackson in the wake of their blowup on the dance floor. In a moment of full honesty, Joel finally tells Ellie he is sorry, but given the opportunity, he would do it again. Relieved that Joel is finally willing to tell the truth, Ellie admits that she probably can't forgive Joel for what he did, but is willing to at least try. The pair take one halting step down the path to reconciliation and forgiveness.
This scene makes it clear that The Last of Us Part 2 is basically one long emotional bookend for the original game; an opportunity to reckon with the consequences of Joel's actions, and the devastating impact they have on Ellie, as well as the world at large. The two games end up being two halves of a whole, with Ellie's quest for revenge doubling as a quest for closure over what she sees as Joel's betrayal.
As The Last of Us Part 2 shows, forgiveness is at best a messy process. Their conversation on the porch is only a beginning. When Ellie and Dina talk the next morning, Ellie says that the pair are planning to get together to watch a movie, but it's evidence that things are still difficult between them. It's why, convinced she can never truly resolve her grief over Joel, Ellie goes wild with revenge in Seattle. It's only in the savage, primal act of maximum revenge that the spell is finally broken, with Ellie realizing that she can find no relief or closure in drowning Abby, only emptiness.
In that, Ellie is redeemed, and she can finally begin the healing process. Still, her actions are not without consequences. When she eventually returns to the farm she shares with Dina and her child, she finds it abandoned—her punishment for going against Dina's wishes and traveling to Santa Barbara. It's a depressing end to one of The Last of Us Part 2's few emotional bright spots.
And yet, in its own bleak way, The Last of Us Part 2 has a happy ending. The final shot of The Last of Us Part 2 is of Joel's guitar, the symbol of the unresolved differences between Joel and Ellie, left behind in the window. Ellie's future is uncertain as she departs the farm, having basically lost what amounts to her entire family. But after everything, at least now she can move forward.
I've seen more than a few people argue that The Last of Us Part 2 somehow ruins the original game, which is an argument that I've found puzzling. If anything, the sequel makes the original better, exploring the fallout of Joel's decisions and his deep but troubled bond with Ellie in ways that add greatly to the story's emotional texture.
Taken together, The Last of Us and its sequel comprise one complete work, with Ellie as its most important figure. As I said in my review, The Last of Us is the action, and The Last of Us Part 2 is the reaction, with Abby as the literal embodiment of the consequences of Joel's actions. Ellie being able to find closure and move forward with her life marks the emotional endpoint of this particular journey.
The ending isn't without its rough spots. Halfway through the initial sequence on Dina's farm, I found myself wondering if the story was ever going to end. The Rattlers, the wannabe post-apocalyptic Hell's Angels who take Abby prisoner, are mainly useless enemies who probably could have been dispensed with entirely.
The core of it works, though. Watching Ellie's grief torpedo her relationship with Dina was painful, and both her battles with Abby were intense to the point that I had to literally jump up and go for a walk, unable to follow through with what the game seemed to be asking. The final scenes bring it all home—an emotional denouement that completes the journey started in the original game, when Ellie asked Joel to swear to her that everything he told her about the Fireflies was true, and he couldn't bring himself to be honest with his surrogate daughter.
Truthfully, I hope there's never a Last of Us Part 3. Watching Ellie walk away through that window, I felt like her story was finished. Here's hoping that Naughty Dog—and ultimately the fans—agree.